What I’m Playing – Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

A couple weeks ago I decided to swap out my little studio bookshelf for the larger bookshelves in our loft. Although our family reading books now are crammed into a smaller space, my piano scores are seeing the light of day and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve already been using old forgotten gems in lessons with students. It’s so nice to be able to easily access my music!

One of the forgotten gems I came across was this Urtext edition of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Ausgewahlte Klavierwerke, roughly translated “Selected Keyboard Works”. The book contains eleven pieces for piano, including two etudes, one nocturne, and two lieder, the genre in which Hensel excelled.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) is a compelling composer, in my opinion. Her first pieces to be published were done so under her brother Felix’s name (these pieces are found in his Opus 8 and 9). Later she was published under her own name, and she herself understood how exceptional it was for a woman composer to be published in the early 1800’s. “And so I have decided to issue my works in print. Bote & Bock have made offers to me the likes of which have perhaps never before been given a dilettante composer of my sex…” Composing was as much a part of her life as being a wife and mother. She found the most success in her piano pieces and songs (lieder), which is understandable considering the extent of her brother Felix’s work in his Songs Without Words. I can imagine the two of them discussing the finer points of composing at family gatherings. 🙂

I have especially enjoyed playing the first Ubungsstuck (meaning Etude) in C Major and the Notturno.

The Ubungsstuck is a terrific etude to practice these skills:

  1. Alterations between thirds and first inversion chords in both hands
  2. Planing first inversion chords
  3. LH Octave scale passages
  4. Circle of fifths LH
  5. Chromatic chordal movement
  6. Double thirds
  7. Strong harmonic modulations
  8. RH C chord inversions

The Notturno is a lovely, lyrical piece in g minor featuring an arpeggiated left hand accompaniment and beautiful melody.

I have smaller hands (I celebrate the fact that I can reach a 9th on the piano), and these pieces fit very easily within the span of my hand.

I would recommend these pieces for advanced students who need to work on a specific technique such as inverted, planing chords (like the Ubungsstuck); or a student wanting to play something a little off the beaten path; or someone who would like to try a piece in the lieder genre.

I’m looking forward to playing more piano pieces by this often-overlooked composer.


One-Minute Flashcard Challenge

In February we ran the one-minute flashcard challenge. I like to run this challenge periodically to do a little check-up on note-naming among my students. February is a good time to do this because it gives an opportunity for the students to earn an extra prize in those long weeks between Christmas and spring break when it seems not much is happening.

This year the flashcard challenge was divided into three levels:

  1. Level 1 – beginning students who have just started learning notes on the staff and do not know them all yet. They are required to name and play only the notes they know in one minute.
  2. Level 2 – students who can name all the notes on the staff, but are not proficient yet. These students are given a minute and a half to name and play all the notes on treble and bass clef.
  3. Level 3 – these are more advanced students who can name and play all the notes on treble and bass clef in one minute or less.

A little note about why I have my students both name and play the note…I have found that while lots of students can easily name the notes, it is quite another thing to be able to locate that note on the piano. And that’s actually the point of learning the notes – being able to play those notes that show up in our music in the right place on the keyboard.

Each student that completed the challenge (and they all did!) was rewarded a prize and signed their name on the white board. Everyone likes to see their own name displayed, and the board creates a sense of community within the studio as students check out who accomplished the challenge.

The record time was 23 seconds (24 cards in 23 seconds!) and was a tie between a competitive brother and sister. This ended up being a lot of fun as I shared with the other students how the brother and sister kept beating each other and asking to try again. A little competition can be a good thing!

Thanks to Susan Paradis for the flashcard download and for the One-Minute Club Cards! I made the cards into stickers using this printer paper and placed them on/in my students’ binders as a reminder of their accomplishment, kind of like a badge. 

Master Class at Colorado University

One of my high school students recently had the opportunity to play for a master class at Colorado University in Boulder. The master class was being taught by several master’s and doctoral students in the program.

My student played the first four pages of Dohnanyi’s Rhapsody in CM, Opus 11, Number 3, which she has only been playing for a few weeks. She played musically and technically well and was quite poised during both the performance and instruction.

The instructor gave her several good tips, including how to jump accurately between the opening octaves and building in a crescendo on the first line.

I love that we live in a collaborating musical community. It is terrific that CU opens its doors to local students to have the opportunity to be coached by a talented teacher, and as a local teacher I feel strongly about supporting our local music college. It was also a great opportunity for my student to catch a small glimpse into the life of a music major and see firsthand what some of the requirements are. She is considering majoring in music, so I was thrilled for her to be on campus mingling with some music students and faculty.

Happy Teaching Moments (February 2018)

I have a confession to make…I like the month of February. Yes, sometimes it feels as if I’ll be stuck in winter forever and I absolutely do yearn for warmer weather. But I love this month because we get so much accomplished in the piano studio. There’s not much distracting us for weeks on end, so long-term goals (skills, musicianship, etc.) can be patiently worked on, seen improvement upon, and celebrated.

I love it. Here are some of the things in the studio that made me smile this month:

  1. Flashcard challenge 
  2. Gifts from students
  3. Lots of students finishing books!
  4. Finding new music like Philip Wesley’s Dark Night of the Soul
  5. Beautiful hands of an adult piano student. They have done much work and seen much life, and produce beautiful music at the piano.
  6. New adult student giving me a hug when she left the studio
  7. Attending local concerts
  8. Master class at Colorado University in Boulder for a high school student


Book I’ve been reading (slowly!):

The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine


What made you smile this month?

Favorite Beautiful Modern Piano Music for Teens

I’m always on the lookout for solid supplemental material to engage my teenage students. Whether it’s pop music, sound tracks or modern piano music, I want teens to be able to play music they connect with and want to play for others. Today I’m going to highlight some of our favorite beautiful and lyrical modern piano pieces for teenage students.

Sheet Music:

River Flows in You by Yiruma – this piece has enjoyed huge popularity lately, for good reason. This arrangement is very pianistic and fairly easy to learn.

100 Years by Five for Fighting – recognizable and lovely tune

A Thousand Years by Christina Perri -beautiful melody used in the Twilight movie series

Music Box Dancer by Frank Mills – a older piece with a sweet, music-box melody

Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar -throwing it back old school style. This piece is featured in the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War”. The melody is hauntingly beautiful and is terrific for teaching phrasing.

Hallelujah Cohen/Keveren – most teens recognize this tune and love to play this arrangement. Philip Keveren for the win.

Stars and Wind by Catherine Rollin – a newer addition to our studio. Very beautiful, pattern-based melody.

Over the Rainbow by Iz – the arrangement linked here on Noviscore features three different levels.



The Kingdom Series by Emily Elizabeth Black – music for the books of the same name. We especially like “The Dawn” and “Call to Courage”.

Dark Night of the Soul by Philip Wesley – new age style music. The book is available as a downloadable PDF file. Our favorites from the book are the title piece “Dark Night of the Soul” and “The Approaching Night”.

Favorite Solos Book 3 by Robert Vandall – contains some beautiful, lyrical pieces, most notably “Lydian Nocturne”, “Consolation” and “Dream Catcher”.


I feel strongly that all of my students should have at least one piece in their repertoire at all times that they can sit down and play for their own enjoyment. I frequently ask my students “What piece do you play for your own enjoyment?” Some of these pieces listed here have ended up on my students’ playlists.



Live music…one of the best gifts

Great live music is one of the best gifts you can give or receive.

-Jonathan Harnum



This past month I had the opportunity to attend two great live performances. The first was a family concert performed by the symphony orchestra in our little town. I love that as a community we support fine art and good culture and that local musicians have an outlet for their talents to be heard and appreciated by others.

This was a family concert, which I personally love because kids are talking, walking and dancing in the aisles, and eating snacks. I think this is how music should be enjoyed – alongside people you love, moving, talking, eating, being human.

The concert featured “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant”, which is a children’s book written by Jack Prelutsky and set to music by Lucas Richman. The book and music are composed of household objects combined cleverly with an animal – umbrellaphants, toadsters, alarmadillos.  Mr. Prelutsky was the narrator for the concert, and the whole effect was so original and captivating. Definitely a “Carnival of the Animals for the new millennium.”

The orchestra also performed a few pieces from Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals, which is always welcome. Then the winner of the orchestra’s young musician’s competition played with the orchestra. She played excellently – a high school senior, violinist, with several accolades already behind her name in the bio. The end of the concert featured the youth symphony playing side by side with the symphony orchestra. What a terrific opportunity for those kids. 20180127_155216It’s so worthwhile attending live concerts! I loved the opportunity to attend with my girls.


A few weeks later I was thrilled to attend a concert of the Boulder Philharmonic with my husband. The concert, titled “Cirque Goes to the Movies” was a collaboration of the philharmonic with Cirque de la Symphonie, a group of cirque acts performed on the stage shared with the full symphony orchestra. The acts included aerial flyers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, balancers and strongmen. The concert also featured Janice Martin, the “World’s Only Acrobatic Aerial Violinist”, a Juilliard-trained violinist.

Combine these acts with the world-class Boulder Philharmonic playing gorgeous movie themes, and you’ve got yourself a sure winner. The music was radiant, emotionally-charged and technically precise. The Cirque acts were at times charming, humorous, breathtaking and nerve-wracking.

I love that traditional orchestras are collaborating with other art forms, some of which are culturally trendy such as the Cirque, to present fresh and engaging concerts. I believe these types of concerts bring new audiences to the concert hall and therefore give the orchestra more exposure to a wider group of people.

And speaking of concert halls…

Macky Auditorium on the campus of Colorado University, Boulder is absolutely stunning.20180203_185120

The Practice of Practice (Book Review)


The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum is a must-read for teachers who are passionate about helping students improve. Even though we may wish otherwise, there is really only one way to improve our skills, and that is to practice. Mr. Harnum’s insightful and comprehensive look at practice was both enlightening to me as a teacher, and highly motivational to me as a musician. In short, it made me want to practice!

As a teacher, here are a few things I learned and hope to pass along to my students:

…a few activities highly accomplished professional musicians consider to be practice:
Watching others perform
Playing informally
Group rehearsal

…thinking about practice in terms of the amount of hours you have to put in is misleading. Put in as many hours as you’re driven to put in. It’s the passion and the interest that are most important, not the numerical value of accumulated practice hours. Forget the amount of hours you practice and focus instead on the quality of the practice in the hours.

I found this extremely helpful:

Here are a few things a good teacher will do:
Gain and maintain your interest in the task.
Simplify the task.
Emphasize certain aspects of the task that will help you “get it”.
Help you control your level of frustration.
Demonstrate the task.
Play along with you when necessary.

Notes on practicing creatively (my favorites are in bold):

-Practicing creatively engages you with your material like nothing else can.
-Scales – start in different places, play with different rhythms
-Playfully irreverent
-Maintain a sense of play
-Look at the problem from opposing viewpoints – backwards, inverted
Psychological distance – imagine that a problem you’re facing is something everyone encounters, and that it’s your job to find a solution to help others work through the same problem. Or imagine your techniques will be put in a method book or in a helpful YouTube video. Imagine yourself a year from now – how would that future self approach a problem in practice, or practice in general?
Imagine how someone else tackles a problem – What would {insert name of your favorite musician} do? What would a technician do?

Planning your practice session:

-Keep it simple
-Before you start, take a moment to go over what you want to accomplish. Identify the most challenging parts of the music and focus only on those, not the whole song.
-Warming up the brain/body 5-10%
-Intense focus on reaching the immediate goal you’ve set for the session 60-75%
-Play like you’re performing 20-30%
-Do double duty by warming up with tricky fingerings, articulations, etc.

Mental practice strategies:
Isolating problem sections to practice mentally
Chanting or clapping or tapping out rhythms
Singing parts
Fingering silently while hearing the music in your mind
Imagining someone you admire greatly is in the practice room listening to you closely
Visualizing a performance in great detail

How to practice with the metronome:
-Find the tempo at which you can play a short passage perfectly. Pay attention to how relaxed you are. All the tempo increases should be played with the same relaxed feeling.
-Increase the tempo just enough so you creep into the zone where you’re not comfortable any more, but are still able to play the passage. Keep repeating it until you’re relaxed and comfortable again.
-Increase the metronome speed by one or two clicks.
Those who used the technique of alternating between half speed and performance tempo produced the best results.
Hearing a passage played correctly at the correct tempo is a huge benefit.

The best practicers are assessing their practice all the time. They do this to:
-See progress and improvement
-Identify weakness
-Plan improvement strategy
-Realign your goals, especially short-term goals


The book contains many inspiring and helpful quotes. Here are a few:

The reason for lessons is to learn how to practice. And that’s it. – Bob Duke

“The first time I played a bass, I was successful. Success is not a goal. Success is in the doing. Always.”-Ian MacKaye

“Stare with your ears.”

“Talent is earned through diligence, effort, and practice.”

“If you want to keep getting better, you have to reach beyond the horizon of what you know, beyond your current ability, whatever it is.”

“Don’t label something you can’t play as “difficult”. Instead, think of challenging music not as difficult, but simply as unfamiliar. Good practice is all about embracing the challenge of making the unfamiliar, familiar.”

I highly recommend adding this to your library!